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Resumes: Font and Function
Revive your outdated resume with these tips on font, formatting, and grammar.
Looking at an ugly resume?
Read on for advice on fonts, grammar, and style, and breathe some vita into your curriculum vitae.
A word on fonts
Everybody loves fonts
Or is that just me? Either way, they are important. So which ones will work for your resume and which should be saved for kindergarten newsletters? I’m looking at you, Comic Sans.
Luckily, there are a few hard and fast rules when it comes to resumes.
Serifs are the slight projections at the ends of each stroke present certain typefaces like Times New Roman. Serif fonts are more traditional, and they can convey a sense of authority and reliability. On the other hand, they can look a bit old-fashioned in some contexts, especially since the majority of typefaces we encounter in the the wild these days are sans-serif.
San-serif typefaces, like the one you are reading right now, have a simpler appearance and a more modern aesthetic. Historically, the trade-off has been with readability, however, many sans-serif fonts are designed for enhanced readability on screens, which is usually where your resume will be viewed. Sans-serif fonts also have the advantage of being widely used in user interface (UI) environments. If you browse Facebook or send an email, you will be absorbing information via sans-serifs, so opening up an email attachment written in Times New Roman can be a little jarring.
Which one is best?
Which one you decide to use is up to you, but here’s what I would do: always use a sans-serif font for all the text in the body of your resume. As for the heading, use a serif font to convey assertiveness and reliability, and sans-serif if you want to seem unassuming and approachable.
Coloured fonts are fun in a lot of contexts, but not resumes. We want to maximise readability, and unnecessary colour can detract from this. So, best stick to black and white. Or, if you want to try something really exciting, choose a tone of dark grey that’s lighter than pure black by 5-15%. This lowers the contrast slightly, making the document easier on the eye. Think about it, when do you ever see 100% between black and white in nature?
Resume traditionalists will argue that any use of colour is too informal for a resume at. As a counter argument, when was the last time you read a professional document or correspondence from an organisation that was entirely in black and white?
More on colour
My preference is to use muted, organic tones to emphasis the header and highlight sections in the resume. But don’t overdo it!
A word on words
Resumes are a place for bullet points, not paragraphs. If your resume is made of large blocks of text there is a high chance that your reader will skim over key information. Either break up those paragraphs into punchy one-liners that can be easily digested, or move your paragraphs to your cover letter where they will be read.
Line of duty
For each line in your list of duties, make sure you are delivering the most important information first.
Let’s look at an example.
“Implemented process improvements such as… leading a 40% reduction in waste”
Now, that’s not bad at all. But can it be better?
I would argue that reducing waste is the most important thing here. So, instead, let’s try:
“Reduced waste by 40% by implementing process improvements such as…”
Resumes like business English, but that doesn’t mean you need to use difficult language or big words. Use sharp, clear, and action-based descriptions of your duties and your reader will thank you.
DIY Grammar Nazi
Should you use first-person pronouns? Past tense, or present? Articles? Auxiliary verbs?
The most important quality to endow your resume with is consistency. Switching tenses is a sure-fire way to confuse your reader. The last thing you want is for them to have to backtrack in order to make sense of a sudden change in tense.
There is a lot of confusion about active vs passive voice. Put simply, in the active voice, the subject of the sentence performs an action, while in the passive, the subject is the recipient of the action. It is not the case that one is correct and one is incorrect; they both have legitimate uses, even in business English.
Usually for a resume, you are the subject, and you want to convey an action, so active voice is most suitable.
However, sometimes the passive voice is called for, for example if you were to say,
‘My options were limited by time and budgetary constraints.’
I’d like to buy a verb, please
It might not be voice that is making your resume feel lacklustre. If someone has told you that your writing is too ‘passive’, it is likely that they are borrowing the term as a descriptor, rather than providing a technical analysis of the grammatical structure of your resume. Even if you are using the active voice, your writing may lack impact for other reasons. Consider if you were to begin a line with:
‘Responsible for ensuring…’,
This is an example of active voice. You are the subject, since a pronoun, ‘I’ —and an auxiliary verb, ‘was’,— are implied. ‘(I was) responsible for ensuring…’ .
As a rule of thumb, the more stuff you have in front of the verb, the weaker it gets. In this case, there is an auxiliary verb and an adjective. The line is also weakened by the fact that you aren’t claiming to have actually performed your duty, just that you were responsible for it. Luckily, there is a simple remedy. Start your line with the verb:
Here is another example that might be trickier to sport.
‘Preparation of documents, stakeholder management, and delegation of tasks …’
Each of the duties in this list is a single noun. There is a verb in the implied preamble, and the sentence is technically active, but is not action based.
Here, the start of the sentence would be something like, ‘My duties include the preparation of documents…’. And although there is an implied verb here— ‘include’—, it is being performed by your duties, not by you. So, how do you we make this stronger? Easy, add verbs.
‘Prepare documents, manage stakeholders, and delegate tasks.’
Got all that?
With your resume, it’s better to keep it simple and err on the side of conservatism. If your head starts to hurt, don’t be afraid to close your word processor for the day and come back with fresh eyes. Sometimes it can help to get a second opinion, so go ahead and show your partner, a friend, or upload your resume here for some free advice from us.